‘Rear Window’: Hitchcock’s Cinematic Exploration of Voyeurism Disguised as a Top-Notch Thriller

By Sven Mikulec

For all our education and filmwatching experience, we still haven’t found a better example of a film that so efficiently, elegantly and in a brilliantly simple way manages to produce a protagonist so easy to connect with, a hero whose eyes become our eyes and whose fears, doubts, anxiety and curiosity instantly become our own. In Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock decided to create a professional photographer who is forced to spend his long summer days next to the open window of his apartment, from where he makes time go by less painfully by observing his surroundings, or to be more precise, the other tenants of his apartment building. As anyone who’s watched this film already knows, and we sincerely hope most of you have, the temporarily physically handicapped photographer accidentally witnesses something he immediately classifies as murder, and on his persistent journey of discovering the truth we are sucked in to sit right by his side, in that one single room where most of the action happens. It’s one of Hitchcock’s best ideas, translated to the screen as a true thriller classic we can never get tired of watching.

Rear Window was written by John Michael Hayes, who based it on Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 short story entitled ‘It Had to Be Murder,’ but the film as such would hardly be possible if it weren’t for Jimmy Stewart, the most extraordinary “ordinary guy” of the old Hollywood. Grace Kelly plays his fiancée, a beautiful young model who goes out of her way to accommodate her older boyfriend, a man who seems to be doing whatever’s in his power to distance himself from her. Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter and Raymond Burr all give excellent performances without which Rear Window would shine considerably less than it does, but Stewart is the one who carries this film to the end credits. Shot by the proficient and productive American cinematographer Robert Burks, who worked with Hitchcock on no less than twelve pictures from Strangers on a Train to Marnie, edited by another frequent Hitchcock collaborator George Tomasini (Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds and six more) and presenting the German-American composer Franz Waxman’s melodies, Rear Window is widely regarded as part of the elite group of the greatest movies ever produced.

What makes this film so good is the fact it could be seen and analyzed from numerous different perspectives. First of all, it’s a very effective thriller filled with nail-biting suspense. Secondly, since most of the film is shot from the main character’s perspective, allowing the story to be simultaneously revealed to both the protagonist and the audience, Rear Window is a wonderful examination of the voyeuristic qualities of cinema. Hitchcock himself stated he’s so proud of the film because it allowed him to tell such a great deal of the story by relying on pure visuals, but in case you still haven’t found the time or motivation to see it–rest assured, the film is nothing close to being an exhibition of indisputable filmmaking technique that Hitchcock is still so famous for. Underneath the murder mystery and all the gimmicks that make Rear Window such a pleasure to discuss, explore and dissect at seminars, workshops and film clubs, we have real human beings, well-developed and three-dimensional. Rear Window is therefore a film about filmmaking, yes, but it’s also a complex movie with depth, range, humor and warmth that’s here, first and foremost, for our repeated pleasure.

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: John Michael Hayes’ screenplay for Rear Window [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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When it came to his career, John Michael Hayes experienced the heaven and hell of Alfred Hitchcock. The four films they made together in a remarkably short period of time during the mid-1950s—Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 version)—would seem to provide the defining moments of Hayes’s résumé. But an initially harmonious working relationship turned sour. According to Hayes, Hitchock nurtured the fledgling screenwriter only to betray him ultimately.

About two years into your B-movie career, you met Hitchcock?
Yes. I had worked on a radio show called Suspense, which was a half-hour drama. Then I worked on ‘The Adventures of Sam Spade’ and a number of other radio detective shows. He used to listen to them. He heard my name all the time. That’s really what got him interested in me, because I doubt if he had gone to see War Arrow or Red Ball Express or anything else. So he inquired about me. It turned out we had the same agency, MCA, but we were in different departments. He gave me a tryout, and it stuck. He needed a writer for Rear Window, so I went from B movies to A movies overnight.

How did that all come about, the decision to make Rear Window?
Paramount found Rear Window. Hitch had left Warner Brothers and was looking for a home. And Paramount said if he could get a screenplay out of a Cornell Woolrich story, they would make a deal with him. They gave him a collection called After-Dinner Story, by William Irish, a pen name of Cornell Woolrich. Out of about five or six stories, he liked ‘Rear Window’ and brought me in on it.

I understand the Grace Kelly character was your own idea.
There was no girl in the original. I created the part. Hitch had done Dial M for Murder with Grace Kelly, and she was beautiful in that film; but there was no life, no sparkle there. He asked me what we should do with her for Rear Window, so I spent time with her for about a week. My wife, Mel, was a successful fashion model, so I gave Grace my wife’s occupation in the film. The way the character posed, the dialogue—it reflected actual incidents in our life.

Were there tricks or techniques that Hitchcock taught you? Things you weren’t doing in radio or in B movies?
I like to write dialogue. It’s one of my skills, character and dialogue. Hitchcock, of course, grew up in silent films, and all those directors who did silent films have a tendency to rely on the camera as much as they can. And I caught some of that spirit. Hitchcock taught me about how to tell a story with the camera and tell it silently. We used a long camera movement to open Rear Window. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, in the scene at Albert Hall with Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart, we had written some dialogue in case we needed it, but we didn’t intend to use it if we didn’t have to. Hitch, with his mastery, felt that without dialogue this whole final sequence where the assassination is about to take place—of a central figure from some nameless country—would be stronger. We discovered we didn’t need the dialogue at all. But we wrote it protectively.

You incorporated so much clever, risqué banter in your scripts for Hitchcock, particularly Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. Was there a method to your madness?
Oh, sure. We had censorship in those days. So, if I could do it and make it amusing enough, I could get away with it. I used to do that on radio, on shows like ‘The Adventures of Sam Spade.’ By the time they figured out what I was really saying, it was too late to censor it. I think suggestion is better. I’d rather say things through a literary device that’s interesting than just say it out flat. So much of my dialogue is indirect, with layers of meaning, sub-rosa meanings. It’s more challenging to write that way, and people remember the lines. Frequently, people came up to me for autographs, and they quote some of those lines from my Hitchcock movies.

Did you often write with specific actors and actresses in mind?
Certainly. I knew Grace Kelly was going to be in Rear Window and that Jimmy Stewart, if he liked the treatment, was going to play in it too, so I was able to write for them specifically. I wrote a part specially for Thelma Ritter if they could get her, and they did. —John Michael Hayes: Qué Sera, Sera, interview by Susan Green



In the fall of 1962, whilst The Birds was in post-production, François Truffaut carried out extensive interviews with Alfred Hitchcock at his offices at Universal Studios. The interviews were recorded to audio tape and the content eventually edited down into the ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’ book. Buy ‘Hitchcock by François Truffaut’ from Amazon. Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary explores the art and influence of Hitchcock through his famed 1962 interview with François Truffaut. Available on HBO NOW and HBO GO.

My two favorite Hitchcock pictures are Notorious and the one we are going to talk about now, Rear Window. I know it’s based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, but I’ve never read it.
It dealt with an invalid who was con­fined to his room. I think there was a man to look after him, but who wasn’t there all the time. The story described all the things the invalid saw from his window and showed how his life came to be threatened. If I remember it cor­rectly, it climaxes with the killer taking a shot at the man from the other side of the yard, but the invalid manages to grab a bust of Beethoven and hold it up in front of the window so that Bee­thoven gets the bullet!

I imagine that the story appealed to you primarily because it represented a technical challenge: a whole film from the viewpoint of one man, and embodied in a single, large set.
Absolutely. It was a possibility of doing a purely cinematic film. You have an immobi­lized man looking out. That’s one part of the film. The second part shows what he sees and the third part shows how he reacts. This is ac­tually the purest expression of a cinematic idea. Pudovkin dealt with this, as you know. In one of his books on the art of montage, he describes an experiment by his teacher, Kuleshov. You see a close-up of the Russian actor Ivan Mosjou­kine. This is immediately followed by a shot of a dead baby. Back to Mosioukine again and you read compassion on his face. Then you take away the dead baby and you show a plate of soup, and now, when you go back to Mosjou­kine, he looks hungry. Yet, in both cases, they used the same shot of the actor; his face was exactly the same. In the same way, let’s take a close-up of Stewart looking out of the window at a little dog that’s being lowered in a basket. Back to Stewart, who has a kindly smile. But if in the place of the little dog you show a half-naked girl exercising in front of her open window, and you go back to a smiling Stewart again, this time he’s seen as a dirty old man!

Would you say that. Stewart was merely curious?
He’s a real Peeping Tom. In fact, Miss Lejeune, the critic of the London Observer, complained about that. She made some com­ment to the effect that Rear Window was a hor­rible film because the hero spent all of his time peeping out of the window. What’s so horrible about that? Sure, he’s a snooper, but aren’t we all?

We’re all voyeurs to some extent, if only when we see an intimate film. And James Stewart is exactly in the position of a spectator looking at a movie.
I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard un­dressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, “It’s none of my business.” They could pull down their blinds, but they never do; they stand there and look out.

My guess is that at the outset your in­terest in the picture was purely technical, but in working on the script, you began to attach more importance to the story itself. Intentionally or not, that back yard conveys an image of the world.
It shows every kind of human behav­ior-a real index of individual behavior. The picture would have been very dull if we hadn’t done that. What you see across the way is a group of little stories that, as you say, mirror a small universe.

All of the stories have a common de­nominator in that they involve some aspect of love. James Stewart’s problem is that he doesn’t want to marry Grace Kelly. Everything he sees across the way has a bearing on love and mar­riage. There is the lonely woman with no hus­band or lover, the newlyweds who make love all day long, the bachelor musician who drinks, the little dancer whom all the men are after, the childless couple who dote on their little dog, and, of course, the married couple who are al­ways at each other’s throat, until the wife’s mys­ terious disappearance.
The symmetry is the same as in Shadow of a Doubt. On one side of the yard you have the Stewart-Kelly couple, with him im­mobilized by his leg in a cast, while she can move about freely. And on the other side there is a sick woman who’s confined to her bed, while the husband comes and goes. One of the things I was unhappy about in Rear Window was the music. Do you know Franz Waxman?

Didn’t he do the musical score for sev­eral Humphrey Bogart movies?
Yes, and he also did the score for Re­becca. You remember that one of the characters in the yard was a musician. Well, I wanted to show how a popular song is composed by grad­ually developing it throughout the film until, in the final scene, it is played on a recording with a full orchestral accompaniment. Well, it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to, and I was quite disappointed.

Well, that notion is conveyed in the final part of the picture when the old maid, who’s about to commit suicide, changes her mind after hearing the musician play the com­pleted song. And isn’t it at the same moment, as he’s listening to the music, that James Stewart realizes that he’s in love with Grace Kelly? Another potent scene is the one in which the childless couple learn that their little dog has been killed. The thing that’s so good about it is that their reaction is deliberately disproportion­ate. There’s a great hue and cry… it’s handled as if the death of a child were involved.
Of course, that little dog was their only child. At the end of the scene you notice that everyone’s at his window looking clown into the yard except for the suspected killer, who’s smoking in the dark.

This, incidentally, is the only moment at which the film changes its point of view. By simply taking the camera outside of Stewart’s apartment, the whole scene becomes entirely objective.
That’s right, that was the only such scene.

Isn’t this another illustration of one of your working rules, which consists of not giving an over-all view of the setting until a scene reaches its dramatic peak? For instance, in The Paradine Case fifty minutes of action inside the courtroom are climaxed when a humiliated Gregory Peck walks out on the case. Only then, with the camera showing his departure from a distance, do you give a full view of the court­ room. And again, in Rear Window the first time you show the whole courtyard is when the woman begins to scream over the death of her dog and the neighbors all rush to their windows to see what’s happening.
Absolutely. The size of the image is used for dramatic purposes, and not merely to establish the background. Just the other day I was doing a television show and there was a scene in which a man came into a police station to give himself up. I had a close shot of the man coming in, the door closing behind him, and the man walking up to the desk; I didn’t show the whole set. They asked me, “Aren’t you going to show the whole thing so that people know we’re in a police station?” I said, “Why bother? The sergeant has three stripes on his arm right next to the camera, and that’s enough to get that idea across. Why should we waste a long shot that may be useful at a dramatic moment?”

That concept of waste, of saving the image for future use, is an interesting one. Something else: at the end of Rear Window, when the killer comes into Stewart’s room, he says to him, “What do you want of me?” And Stewart doesn’t answer because, in fact, his ac­tions are unjustified; they’re motivated by sheer curiosity.
That’s right, and he deserves what’s happening to him!

Still, he will defend himself by blinding the killer with his flashbulbs.
Those flashes take us back to the me­chanics of The Secret Agent. You remember, in Switzerland they have the Alps, lakes, and chocolate. Now, here we have a photographer who uses his camera equipment to pry into the backyard, and when he defends himself, he also uses his professional equipment, the flashbulbs. I make it a rule to exploit lements that are con­nected with a character or a location; I would feel that I’d been remiss if I hadn’t made maxi­mum lise of those elements.

In this respect the exposition of the film is truly remarkable. You open up with the perspiring face of James Stewart; you move on to his leg in a cast, and then, on a nearby table, there is the broken camera, a stack of maga­zines, and, on the wall, there are pictures of racing cars as they topple over on the track. Through that single opening camera movement we have learned where we are, who the princi­pal character is, all about his work, and even how it caused his accident.
That’s simply using cinematic means to relate a story. It’s a great deal more interest­ing than if we had someone asking Stewart, “How did you happen to break your leg?” and Stewart answering, “As I was taking a picture of a motorcar race, a wheel fell off one of the speeding cars and smashed into me.” That would be the average scene. To me, one of the cardinal sins for a script-writer, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say, “We can cover that by a line of dialogue.” Dialogue should sim­ply be a sound among other sounds, just some­ thing that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.

Something else I’ve noticed is the way you dispense with the build-up to a love scene. Here, James Stewart is alone at home, and all of a sudden the face of Grace Kelly comes into the frame and they are kissing each other. Why do you do it that way?
Because I want to get right to the im­portant point without wasting any time. Here it’s the surprise kiss. In another case there might be a suspense kiss, and that would be com­pletely different.

To my mind, Rear Window is probably your very best screenplay in all respects: the construction, the unity of inspiration, the wealth of details.
I was feeling very creative at the time, the batteries were well charged. John Michael Hayes is a radio writer and he wrote the dia­logue.

One of the things I enjoyed in the film was the dual significance of that wedding ring. Grace Kelly wants to get married but James Stewart doesn’t see it that way. She breaks into the killer’s apartment to search for evidence and she finds the wedding ring. She puts it on her finger and waves her hand behind her back so that James Stewart, looking over from the other side of the yard with his spyglasses, can see it. To Grace Kelly, that ring is a double victory: not only is it the evidence she was looking for, but who knows, it may inspire Stewart to pro­pose to her. After all, she’s already got the ring!
Exactly. That was an ironic touch.

I was still a working critic the first time I saw Rear Window, and I remember writing that the picture was very gloomy, rather pessi­mistic, and quite evil. But now I don’t see it in that light at all; in fact, I feel it has a rather compassionate approach. What Stewart sees from his window is not horrible but simply a display of human weaknesses and people in pur­suit of happiness. Is that the way you look at it?

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Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Photographed by Bud Fraker & Phil Stern © Paramount Pictures, Michael Ochs Archives. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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